Welcome to Eureka Street

back to site

Secular scrutiny can save the Church


Article from The Australian with headline 'Bishop 'sat on' claims priest abused kids'. Photo of an elderly man clutching a photo frameOn Wednesday Peter McClellan, the NSW Supreme Court Judge leading the royal commission into child abuse in institutions, told the media that the commission's task will be long and complex. No surprises there.

His point was to contain expectations among the media that the commission would be anything other than a hard slog, and that he expected that one of the outcomes, apart from legal proceedings that would not be the work of the commission, was the prospect of greater rigour in the execution of child protection procedures.

The following day brought the publication of the findings of Antony Whitlam QC into the handling of 'Father F', a serial abuser in rural NSW and then suburban Sydney.

Whitlam found Father F's ordaining bishop, Harry Kennedy (now deceased) to be culpably negligent, for failing to act on advice from those responsible for Father F in seminary days or to follow up complaints and allegations against Father F when he was acting as a priest.

Game on. This sort of scrutiny will only intensify.

There is little doubt that the perceived inadequacy of the Church's response to child abuse is the trigger for this commission. Alleged cover ups and the claims of a NSW police officer that Church officials obstructed investigations and protected child molesters were the immediate context for the calling the for the commission.

Many see 2013 as a miserable prospect for the Church in Australia, maybe the worst in its history. It is numbed and bewildered. Its leadership has its back to the wall, unable to say much except sorry.

But no approach to history is adequate without a sense of irony. In the long term, if handled properly, this period may well be seen as the circuit breaker that triggers many of the things long hoped for in the Church. And it will be freedoms of a secular liberal society rather than the freedom of the Gospel that could liberate the Church.

It will put a nail in the coffin of clericalism, that 'them and us' culture that fosters an elitism which is the very opposite of Christian discipleship, and which nurtures all those things that mark closed societies: secrecy; the power of the cognoscenti who use their access to information as a power over others; the habit of deception and obfuscation predicated on a belief that outsiders are not entitled to know things decided on by insiders.

It will display lay expertise as the salvation of the Church. Only expertise in law, communications, public advocacy, pastoral care and psychology can help the Catholic community again to hold its head up. Lay people will deliver the expertise or it won't be seen.

It will dismantle any remaining confidence anyone has in Church status as a carrier of anything but a role description. Church leaders will find their authority and ability to be persuasive in the way they lead their communities and witness to the Gospel. Invoking the authority of their position won't cut the mustard.

This period will reveal what the Church is and isn't. It isn't a command and control army or a football team doing what the captain and coach tell it to do. It is a community of faith at the service of the world and therefore must be subject to the accountabilities that are expected of such an ambition in the contemporary world. Transparency and accountability will be externally imposed because the Church is not capable of delivering them of itself.

Too often, public Church utterances against 'evils' and 'abuses' — especially in areas related to sex and gender relations and the right to life — fail to recognise the actual society we live in, which doesn't start where Catholics do. The campaign is conducted as if Catholics have a right to legislate their morality for everyone else.

Now the boot is on the other foot and Catholics are being told their Church has to smarten itself up, bring its practices into line with best practice accepted by everyone else, or suffer not just opprobrium but prosecution. Trust has been strained and only external intervention will address why.

It won't be the first time in the life of the Australian Church that external intervention has produced far more than was initially intended. I've long believed Gough Whitlam has had the largest single impact of any individual on the internal life of the Catholic Church.

Along with Susan Ryan a decade later, he removed the need for a highly committed but under-trained and poorly paid workforce to operate the Catholic school system. He made it possible for Catholic school teachers to be paid a predictable and proper wage, while Ryan oversaw the largest period of growth in the Catholic school system.

This meant there was no longer a need for the battalions of religious to keep the largest single investment by the Church in Australia actually functioning. It also led to the largest ever investment in the theological education of Catholic lay people in the history of the Church in Australia.

Who knows what will come of all this scrutiny. But if honestly engaged with, properly managed and taken as a point of departure, the royal commission may result in a great deal more than the correction of child protection provisions.

Michael Kelly headshotFr Michael Kelly SJ, founding publisher of Eureka Street, is the Bangkok based executive director of UCA News and was, in the 1980s, executive director of the Jesuits' Asian Bureau Australia. 

Topic tags: Michael Kelly, Gough Whitlam, Royal Commission, clergy sex abuse, Peter McClellan



submit a comment

Existing comments

A brilliant article Michael. Thank you.

Agnes Connellan | 18 January 2013  

I think this expresses the nub of the issue and the challenge perfectly.

smk | 18 January 2013  

I think Michael Kelly's article is spot on and could be strengthened by the content of the second of this coming Sunday's readings, 1 Cor 12, 4-11, on the various gift we receive from the Spirit. Clearly our involvement in church life does not need to hinge on the sacrament of holy orders, even though that sacrament does have its place in the scheme of things.

Peter Woodruff | 18 January 2013  

Thank you Michael for stating so clearly how much the Catholic Church in Australia needs the scrutiny as much as the freedoms of our secular liberal society. The most irritating elements of sermons and public statements by some of our priests in recent decades propagated the misconception of anti-Catholicism and the inherent Godlessness of the modern world. It is appropriate that, as a Catholic priest, Michael Kelly tells it how it is.

Ian Fraser | 18 January 2013  

Thanks so much, Mick. Expertise in law, communications, public advocacy, pastoral care, psychology, and, I'd add, the transformative spirituality that has helped us find and be found by God during this Third Week (Passion) of the Church.

Ruth Morgan | 18 January 2013  

Fabulous! Thank you Michael.

Tony W | 18 January 2013  

I met Michael Kelly SJ at a social function recently and am pleased to see how much I've influenced his thinking. Joking aside, this is a strong, insightful and positive summary of where we are and, hopefully, where we might get to. How refreshing and encouraging.

Michael Kelly (the other one!) | 18 January 2013  

I can only hope that "the nail in the coffin of clericalism" will put an end to the clerical rantings against the bogeys of "secularism", "modernism" "feminism"and "relativism" , and that mindset in which "orthodoxy" is seen as the be-all and end-all of Catholic ( though not necessarily Christian) faith and practice.

JR | 18 January 2013  

I agree wholeheartedly. Thankyou for your refreshing directness.

KAM | 18 January 2013  

Michael, In paragraph13 of this article you appear to my reading of it, to write down the Magisterium. The Australian church for the sake of unity has to follow the worldwide authority on moral teaching until it is changed, doesn't it?

philosoffer | 18 January 2013  

Spot on, Michael. Your identification of clericalism as the root of the evil is something that Ted Kennedy harped on years ago. But we were all so conditioned to accepting that father (and his team in Rome)knows best, that it was hard to see how cenrtral a point it was. I used to joke that Voltaire had a seat at Vatican 2 - high up in St Peters somewhere and that he smirked relentlessly. I used to say also, and this wasn't a joke, that with Vatican 2 the official church almost caught up to the world, but not quite! And since then the Vatican has been trying its hardest to roll back the advances. Yours is an important piece and I hope it gets a lot of consideration.

Joe Castley | 18 January 2013  

Good article Michael and i pray that your hopes/predictions do infact eventuate.

Sauro Antonelli | 18 January 2013  

An unfair and regrettable consequence of the revelation of abhorrent child abuse within the Catholic Church is that the great majority of good and hard-working priests and religious have had their reputations clouded or put into doubt. With hindsight, it is clear that those guilty should have been dealt with appropriately at the time and that bishops and church leaders who attempted to 'sweep the problem under the carpet' made a tragic mistake.

Bob Corcoran | 18 January 2013  

Michael's article reminds me of Milton's Invocation at the beginning of Paradise Lost:
"What in me is dark/ Illumine, what is low raise and support;/That to the highth of this great Argument/ I may assert Eternal Providence,/ And justifie the wayes of God to men."
Despite its point of depart - the cover-up of the sex-abuse of children within the Catholic church - I believe and I hope that the Royal Commission will lead to a fearless and moral inventory by catholics (both clerical and lay) of life within the Catholic church in Australia. Who know? The repercussions may spread throughout the world.
Australia may yet prove to be, in God's Providence, the Great Southern Land of the Holy Spirit.

Uncle Pat | 18 January 2013  

A very thoughtful and insightful aricle however I wonder about Michael's optimism that secularism will breakdown the walls of power, clericalism and elitism. In the face of one of the biggest evils in church history I have seen only defensiveness and reluctant apologies from the Church's leadership. I see no evidence that this leadership, from the Pope down, wants to give up their power and privilge. I see them continue to hound and intimidate so called unorthodox nun's and theologians for defending the rights of the marginalised, both within and outside the church, while at the same time they protect and promote people like Cardinal Bernard Law who is guilty of moving from parish to parish a notorious peadophile priest. I think it was Einstein who said, "You can't solve a problem, with the same consciousness that created it in the first place."

Ron | 18 January 2013  

Thank you Father Kelly for a wonderfully true insight,esp ecially into the old days of Catholic education. I never truly realised just what we owe to Gough Whitlam...He converted religious to being trained teachers..not teachers because they were in religious orders....we will survive...but..on our knees.at times.

john m costigan | 18 January 2013  

An excellent article. Tell us next how we inspire our Bishops to, as a group, show us how they will lead us forward as as a modern renewed Australian Church.

Brian | 18 January 2013  

"Secular Scrutiny can save the Church"????
What actually is 'The Church'? It is a structure set up to facilitate implimentation of Christianity. Part of this structure is the fabrication of symbols to aid human spirits to transcend the gap between material approximations and the spiritual reality behind them, so as to put our lives in tune with God.
Just as a lobster needs its shell structure to function, but as it outgrows it, it must replace it with a new one to fit its needs, so the Church needs to up-date its Symbols.
As Thomas Merton said, "When it is said 'God is dead', what is true is that the Symbols used to depict God are dead."
Secular Scrutiny can only remove some Faults in the structure, but it can be Saved only by replacing out-dated Symbols with more appropriate ones, and recognising that God is not some man-like Being living just above the clouds and manipulating the laws of nature in response to human behaviour.
This is not likely to happen, as arch-conservatives are in charge treating out-dated Traditions as demi-gods.

Robert Liddy | 18 January 2013  

Bob, it wasn't only the bishops and church leaders who were party to the on-going cover-ups. Many of your 'great majority of good and hard-working priests and religious' must have known of both the abuse and the cover-ups yet all but a few chose, or perhaps were coerced, to remain silent.

Ginger Meggs | 18 January 2013  

Prophetic stuff, Michael. Thank you. You use the future tense when describing the laity as the "salvation of the Church". I think the present tense would be more appropriate...

Donella Johnston | 18 January 2013  

What's in the drink that Jesuits sup? Andrew Hamilton and Mike Kelly are surely singing the same song in their most recent articles. Andrew, re the new translation of the missal, and Michael on this issue of the Royal Commission, both indicate that the church is at the service of the world, yet somehow strangely out of touch with the same world. We should not forget that this was THE bold step of Vat 11, to help the Church be on mission to the world. One cannot be relevant in mission, if one does not understand the nature of the one to whom mission is being directed. The litany of "isms" condemned by the church is self-revelatory in this context. If one looks at the issue of civil legislation about gay marriage, then one has to conclude, that generally, society will legislate in favour of gay marriage. The Church, meanwhile, will go on talking to itself in ways limited by its refusal to engage the broader freedom which does not restrict love and its public recognitions, to just a man and a woman.

Garry | 18 January 2013  

This is an excellent article I do hope that our Bishops heed the message, and never again expose children and other vulnerable people to abuse through acts of omission as has been clearly demonstrated by former Justice Anthony Whitlam in relation to Father "F". Margaret M.Coffey

Margaret M Coffey | 18 January 2013  

Sure Michael, and a lot of the populace will want the focus on clericalism and the repudiation by clerics of expertise outside the Roman Church. Let's not just arrest the usual suspects. I believe there is a more rigorous kind of inquiry needed. The systematic coverup of abuse is just that systematic. There are so many complex threads and causal links that clericalism is just one factor of many for which many of us are responsible. Why did professionals in the Church bow to the clerics? Why did the people with common sense, who often had to pay a price, bow to the Bishop? Why did clerics Religious Orders bow to bishops whom they new were incompetent or corrupt? Why did the faithful need the status of having a priest as a family friend? Why did training organizations vet so many unsuitable candidates for the priesthood? Why when it was reported to superiors that an assault had occurred in a seminary that the superior did nothing? Why did some who resigned from religious orders get bigger payouts than others? Why did seminarians put up with a training which was training for nothing, not even the priesthood?
No Michael, much as it might be convenient to lay a lot of causal blame at the feet of the institution, there is more to it than that. The Commission must seek not just to inquire simply, but wisely and using the insights of social sciences etc.

Michael D. Breen | 18 January 2013  

What confidence in secular scrutiny.
I recall,with a little adjustment, some words from the Fool in King Lear: 'You have lowered your breeches and give your enemies the rod."

John | 18 January 2013  

Yes, Ginger, I agree that most of them would have known what was going on but they faced a dilemma: speak out (to whom?) and risk being demonised; or staying silent and continuing their chosen good work.

Bob Corcoran | 18 January 2013  

"This period will reveal what the Church is and isn't. It isn't a command and control army or a football team doing what the captain and coach tell it to do. It is a community of faith at the service of the world and therefore must be subject to the accountabilities that are expected of such an ambition in the contemporary world. Transparency and accountability will be externally imposed because the Church is not capable of delivering them of itself. "

Michael I'm disappointed you didn't also say that the Church is also an institution that transcends the world; embodies a hope that is above and beyond all human failings- even ours (perhaps especially ours). I agree that the Church can and will be purified by this 'secular inquisition' - there will be 'gift' to us in the pain, but we would be naive if we believed that all our inquisitors were simply interested in challenging the Church about its failings. Already we have seen folks using the Church's day of reckoning as an opportunity to 'settle old scores'. We must remain humble and trusting, but we are also entitled to defend ourselves against broadside attacks that simply aim to destroy the fundamentals of our faith.

Esther | 18 January 2013  

Thanks Michael for this clear-minded piece. You state what is obvious of course, which needs to be heard over and over until we learn to start with what is true rather than with what satisfies and protects.

Kevin Bates | 18 January 2013  

A breath of fresh air, let's hope and pray it comes to pass.

Patricia Tully | 18 January 2013  

Congratulations, Michael, wonderful exposition of what is to come. I feel really optimistic now that the Royal Commission has started. We would never have reformed ouselves! I think, by the way, that Joe Castley's supposition that Voltaire was high up in the basilica could be accompanied by Congar when he was not giving advice,(unheeded) to the Conciliar bishops.

Joan Winter OP | 18 January 2013  

Thank you Michael for outlining the challenge facing the hierarchy of our church.

Given the attitudes displayed to date by those "leaders" there would need to be a very substantial change before what you suggest "can save the church" would eventuate.

"Till now, anyone who asked for honest reviews of the church's processes has been attacked and denigrated at every opportunity, and anyone who accepts that the bishops "welcome the Royal Commission" must not have noticed how the consistent requests for such an inquiry have been scorned and rejected.

To say the Royal Commission is welcomed, and cooperation is promised, sounds good, but until real cooperation is evidenced by actions, such statements are "empty gongs and clashing cymbals."

Jim Boyle | 18 January 2013  

Michael, you have said it all. My comments at http://www.eurekastreet.com.au/article.aspx?aeid=34746 are pretty much in synch with your article. In summary, I would be very surprised if the church does not become more subject to legal controls in Australia as a result of the Commission. The hierarchy has shown itself incapable of dealing with the real, systemic issues and has only itself to blame. The church is too bound up in its own dogma to carry out the necessary structural reform. Therefore my expectation is that reform will be thrust upon it by government. That might actually save the Roman Catholic Church from oblivion, in Australia at least.

Frank S | 18 January 2013  

Frank S: The Church and any institution or individual in society should be very wary of any reform "thrust upon it by government." Freedom is a basic (though admittedly not the only value of both democratic and Christian society.

John | 19 January 2013  

Insightful article. ... and I agree with Bob Corcoran (18 Jan) that the “revelation of abhorrent child abuse” … has also damaged the exemplary reputations of the vast majority of hard-working and dedicated religious in the Church. The Church must at ALL times, (and should always have been) the very first at being fearless and totally honest with self-scrutiny. It is well-known by psychologists that perpetrators, constantly trying to justify their actions, are not in the habit of going anywhere near a confessional.. So the Church should have immediately reported even any suspected crime to police and allowed full investigation. It should never have feared transparency before the public. This action alone would have allowed the Church to command a far higher respect from the faithful and the general public. Instead failure of immediate and honest scrutiny and transparency in all cases, has left the Church weakened to the point where so many disappointed have “walked away from the Church” (without pausing to consider that the statistics in other professions - doctors, lawyers, sports coaches, teachers, etc. etc. do outnumber by far those of the clergy; without pausing to consider the Church's vast richness of philosophy and to overlook the fact that the Church holds the one and only key to a higher level of civilisation. Yes, human frailty unchallenged, has in the end, been a far higher price to pay because the public perception is that there is still no excuse for breaking any of the Ten Commandments by any member of the Church. Now the Church will have to raise the bar in its own ranks to regain the respect of the general public. So much has been lost by not enough attention to fair-minded self-scrutiny and transparency - which should always have been one of the very hallmarks of the Church.

m. stewart | 21 January 2013  

"Too often, public Church utterances against 'evils' and 'abuses'... fail to recognise the actual society we live in, which doesn't start where Catholics do." So: did the prophets and then Jesus Himself make a mistake, then?

HH | 21 January 2013  

Yes, HH - Jesus did make a mistake - he confronted the abuses and suffered the consequences, having his life cut short at the age of 33 through an agonising and humiliating crucifixion.

AURELIUS | 23 January 2013  

Aurelius: You misconstrue the sense of HH's comment by ignoring its contextual application.
Jesus never accepted contemporary and exclusively secular opinion, even consensual, as the final arbiter on moral and social matters. Nor can the Church if she is to be faithful to her Lord and his mission throughout the ages.

John | 23 January 2013  

Precisely, John. Thank you.

HH | 23 January 2013  

Bob Corcoran, you seem to imply that it would have been best to "deal with appropriately" the misbehaving clergy to protect the reputations of their fellow priests. This is simply another slant on the attitude which underlies this whole problem. Protect the church above all else. Surely the protection of the vulnerable and insistence on justice and right behaviour are much more important.

Maggie | 25 January 2013  

JOHN and HH - there's a difference between "scrutiny" and "arbitration" when it comes to moral and social matters. In the case of child sex abuse, it's quite clearly a case of clear cut, low level arbitration. I don't think even the most primitive of creation (ie animals supposedly without conscience) would doubt that molesting a child is immoral.

AURELIUS | 26 January 2013  

Cardinal Pell and his fellow Cardinals must do more than just watch lawyers prove the recklessness of the current Vatican clique. The must act now. For more explanation, please read the statement at ChristianCatholicism.com of the retired Harvard trained international lawyer entiitled, "Will Cardinals Try To Delay Benedict XVI's Choice For Next Pope?", accessible at : http://wp.me/P2YEZ3-gW

Jerry Slevin | 30 January 2013  

Similar Articles

Incompetent dealing with priestly paedophilia

  • Frank Brennan
  • 22 January 2013

Bishop Harry Kennedy was not the only one out of his depth in the saga of paedophile priest Fr F; practitioners in law and psychology were found wanting. Other than Kennedy, most of the senior clergy involved appear to have done their job credibly according to the values and practices of the time.


Using poor language in the liturgy

  • Andrew Hamilton
  • 17 January 2013

One year on from the introduction of the New Mass Translation it is clear that the more dramatic hopes and fears were not realised. There were no reports of widespread rebellion in the pews, but nor has there been the great spiritual renewal that some promised. The language of the new translation is simply not grounded.